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Scenario and Visioning Work



In our scenario and visioning work, we need to clarify whether our focus is to find one image of or pathway to the future or to create forums for generating many of them. In my understanding, the processes involved in generating one overarching vision and many diverse visions are different (although similar and in no way mutually exclusive).

We may work on one image, just to show that a good future is truly possible. Or we may create multiple visions to open a space of possibility that may have juice for diverse people, projects or perspectives. Or we may generate a very generalized vision which inspires diverse people to create their own specific version of that. And so on.

Here are various approaches to visioning and scenario work.

Item 1: The Boulding/Ziegler model

Elise Boulding and Warren Ziegler did future visioning workshops, which I first heard about nearly 20 years ago. They'd take an audience of perhaps 100 people and invite them to all move (in their imaginations) to a more peaceful world 20 (or 50) years hence. "Think about what it is like in this peaceful world, what life is like -- from what the news is to how you do your shopping." After some individual visioning, they'd break the crowd into groups of 3-5 and participants would take turns focusing on one person, asking them questions, helping them get their vision really solid and clear, and then helping them get it articulated in a written paragraph. Then they'd move on to the next person in the group.... until they'd all gotten something written up.

Then everyone would post their future-descriptions around the room and there'd be a long break while people read each other's descriptions. After the break people would reconfigure in groups of individuals whose visions were similar. This time they'd move TOGETHER in their imaginations to their more-or-less-shared future and work up detailed collective scenarios. Then, together, they'd REMEMBER what had happened over the years since this very workshop that led to their chosen future, with particular attention on what they did following the present-time workshop to bring their chosen future about. All this "remembering," of course, was going on in their imaginations. Then they'd transform themselves into an action group to plan and do those things needed to bring about that future.

At least that's my impression of what they did. I never did one of these workshops; I have old notes from a lecture I heard. I have more recent materials from Ziegler, but haven't read them yet (I'd be happy to share them). I am intrigued by the novel idea of remembering back from an imagined future. But what seems to me most significant about this approach is how it embraces diverse visions within the realm of one powerful, ambiguous, and passionately shared value (in this case PEACE).

The Boulding-Ziegler futuring workshops bear a strong resemblance in this regard to Open Space conferences in which all who come must be passionate about the topic. Once an Open Space conference starts, participants self-organize into dozens of different dialogue and action groups. The diversity of their perspectives and activities is contained and aligned by one unifying principle -- the topic of the conference -- and a few simple shared procedures (the Open Space methodology). I just realized that the Boulding-Ziegler futuring workshops could be called Open Space Imagineering (I'll talk more on imagineering, below).


Item 2: Self-Organizing Systems, Values and Visions

One of the main established principles of self-organizing systems (and complexity theory) is that a few simple laws or principles capable of shaping the behaviors of otherwise free agents can generate incredibly complex and orderly patterns with little or no additional management or co-ordination. In organizations, strategic visions that come from (and therefore reside in) the hearts and minds of the stakeholders (as opposed to mission statements dictated from above) serve this purpose, allowing a facilitative (rather than directive) management style to be effective. This organizational mode is especially effective in times of uncertainty or rapid change or when the sphere of operation is very complex, since centralized linear management systems cannot efficiently process the vast amounts of information involved.

This would suggest that the basic values/realities of the new era (such as the Golden Ruler trio of interconnection, wholeness and co-creativity that I came up with in Monday night's meeting) could be the "attractors" around which people did visioning along the lines of Boulding/Ziegler (i.e., new era values/realities would replace the Boulding/Ziegler theme of PEACE, but the rest of the process might be much the same). This would generate a wide variety of possible forms for and routes to diverse futures all of which embody new era values and take into account new era realities. The resulting futures would align to new era values because only people for whom new era values were paramount would participate in formulating those futures. Any work then done to actualize these diverse futures would be moving in the same direction (i.e., along the vector implied by new era values and realities).

A key to the success of this approach would be the few-ness, precision and articulation of those values: Are they THE values we want to have, or are there others? If we try working with too long a list of values, then its self-organizing power will be diluted; people's attention will be dispersed and the results will be less alive and aligned. We need to discover the few truly fundamental principles we're basing our new era visions on, and use those.


Item 3: Some Words from a Useful Book

Here's a quote from Michael D. McMaster's THE INTELLIGENCE ADVANTAGE: ORGANIZING FOR COMPLEXITY (Butterworth-Heinemann, 1996), pages 150-151:

"The concept of vision is our organizational attempt to fill the space of possibility. Most visions suffer from a lack of understanding possibility and the future. Most people see the future as a place to get to and live as though the future is waiting out there in front of us with an existence of its own. In these limited linear models of the universe and time, a vision as a goal makes perfect sense. At some level [however] we all know that the future will not unfold in the way that we are imagining it and that a vision will not be accomplished as stated. But even so, there must be some value inherent in having a vision.

[a statement in the margin proclaims:] "Exploring what's possible opens possibility. Codifying what's possible closes possibility.

"Exploring what's possible and engaging in the thinking, dialogues and actions that develop those possibilities are both of great value. The richness of the representation of the resulting future will depend on the amount of participation and dialogue that has helped create it. Then how we are able to describe our future becomes the challenge. A rich representation of that future will be possible and valuable only if it can be expressed in poetic, metaphorical, or abstract terms. If these terms are able to capture the fundamental and enduring values of that vision, then something of power has been created. An expression that keeps a corporation's values bright and clear and at the same time remains abstract and nonrestrictive is a powerful way of keeping a space of possibility open. But even more effective than that, the space of possibility can be kept open by continually engaging in conversations that develop the very space itself.

"Most vision statements and other such expressions are designed to motivate people. If these expressions actually carried intentions of including people in the development of the possibility of the future, then we would gain much more. But inherent in intentions to convince or motivate are notions of separateness that are counterproductive to the possibilities of inclusion and participation. To begin to integrate these intentions, we must realize that exploration of the space of possibility is the domain of each and every person. When we realize that people are interested in and capable of exploring possibility, then we will unreservedly include them and gain a wealth of information and creativity. When we recognize that possibility emerges from dialogue and that the broader the dialogue the richer the possibility, then we will have broken through into something exciting that remains alive and flourishing."

McMaster goes on to say that the ideal vision or strategy statement -- one that maximizes the productive potential of a space of possibility -- contains a rich ambiguity (metaphor, poetry, imagery, value-words, implication, etc.) which demands engagement and interpretation by the reader. A reader who shares the passion implicit in the statement can creatively remove the ambiguity (through engagement and interpretation), producing explicit statements (understandings, plans, etc.) upon which they can then base productive activity. To the extent a statement is invitingly ambiguous, therefore, it can embrace a wider zone of possibility than an explicit statement. To the extent it is value-laden, it has power to generate efforts towards explicitness and resulting explicit activities in those who share the values embodied in it. I find all this an interesting analysis and challenge.


Item 4: Story Fields and Co-Creativity

A story field is my coined phrase for a force-field of mutually-reinforcing narratives and life-patterns which shape the thoughts, feelings, responses and behaviors of those who live in the field. "The American Way of Life" (rags-to-riches, own-your-own-home, etc.) is such a story field, as are "Feminism," "Progress" and "The Career." Story fields could be called the narrative dimension of culture (or, for an individual, the narrative dimension of personality).

In a co-intelligent society, people would collectively and consciously generate the story fields in which they lived, instead of having those fields generated by corporate media, official spin-doctors, and authoritative traditions. In the language of democracy, The People would co-create the stories by which they then lived.

So a major aspect of co-intelligent social change / cultural transformation is the co-generation of alternative story fields. Not just as a way to "get from here to there," but as a component of ongoing, conscious cultural evolution. (Where we're trying to get to is not a state but a process, a process which starts right now. This can be a little hard to articulate, a bit paradoxical, a bit confusing for those who haven't thought much about the subject. But it is very important. To be consistent with our understandings of holism, quantum mechanics, complexity and the participatory nature of reality, "a world that works for everyone" cannot be framed as a utopian system that generates benevolent conditions, but rather as a co-intelligent culture through which succeeding generations can continually recreate their culture to suit their changing needs. We are not wise enough to design the future. No one is or can be. But we can easily be wise enough to create conditions and systems that help communities to co-create their lives, including their story fields.)

Item 5: Visionaries and Storytellers

Once I envisioned visionaries (like me) and experts in sustainability getting together with storytellers (like Ursula LeGuin, Marge Piercy, Bruce Springsteen and scriptwriters) and journalists (like those at YES! magazine) -- as well as all the other story-workers in our society -- the historians, psychologists, philosophers, etc. -- to create written/told/performed narratives which would weave a many-faceted alternative story field. In the novel Ecotopia we can witness certain things going on in one particular place; but I always wondered: what's going on 300 miles north of the community described in the book? There's another novel there, waiting to be written. Same with LeGuin's Always Coming Home; she alludes to other cultures here and there around the one she's describing. Why doesn't she or another novelist take up the challenge of writing something from those other vantage points. (Actually she does do it, from only from the bad-guy culture's vantage point. So it's only a start.) If William Faulkner could create Yoknapatawpha County (in which practically all his stories take place), and Garrison Keillor could create a thousand stories about Lake Wobegon, shouldn't a few dozen visionary novelists, singers and scriptwriters be able to co-create a rich fabric of future stories and their "prequels" (like Callenbach's Ecotopia Emerging)? We have precious few good utopian novels and fewer yet that actually serve to help us build a new culture. Such fictional stories, interwoven with stories of people who are actually living out pieces of these stories (as reported in YES! and elsewhere), is what I mean by creating an alternative story field.

The conversations that created those stories could be in an event (e.g., a week-long open space) or a network (with online conferencing and listserves) -- and it could be product oriented (getting a series of novels written) or it could just let the ideas and images flow around among the people, with products popping out of it every now and then...

(Update: This vision came true to a certain extent in the 2007 Story Field Conference.)

Item 6: Imagineering

Speaking of which... there is another approach, which I called imagineering back in 1988 when I created the idea. (I later learned that Disney uses the word with a different definition.) Imagineering to me embraces any use of the imagination to actually create (or try to create) the imagined reality. A supreme example is The Monkeywrench Gang, a novel which provided the story out of which Earth First! arose, born of those who decided to live out the story of sabotaging billboards and earth moving equipment. Walden Two and The Turner Diaries are other imagineering stories which generated real activities.

In 1988 I did a participatory imagineering experiment at a Green Gathering: I created a small journal called The Ecotopian Grapevine Gazette, which contained news articles about neat things that hadn't happened yet, but which we wanted to have happen, written AS IF they had happened. Then, at the end of each article, I put a contact name around whom people could gather who wanted to make that story a reality.

Nothing came of it then, but I think the time may be ripening for something like it now. The action groups that came out of the Boulding/Ziegler workshops could be viewed as another form of imagineering. In the last 20 years many examples of imagineering have emerged.


Item 7: Scenario-building as a path to shared understanding

I read an article in "Wired" magazine about the Global Business Network (Ogilvy and those other scenario builders) which described scenario work among polarized South Africans (ANC, the National Party apartheiders, etc) before the dissolution of apartheid. As participants collaboratively worked over the four most likely scenarios for their collective future, it became obvious that only one scenario would give ANY of them what they wanted -- namely a coalition grounded in the majority and dedicated to steady economic growth, not a welfare state. In this use of scenarios, the participants weren't trying to find The Best Future they could work for. They were considering the natural unfolding of various approaches and discovering together the consequences of each approach. This resulted in a shared understanding which then guided the subsequent behaviors of the parties involved. This use of scenario-building has less of a planning sensibility to it and more of a "let's get some insight into what makes sense" quality.

Often scenarios are explored using a quadrant grid, each axis of which contains opposite possibilities. Prior to Y2K, for example, a leading scenario grid proposed by David Isenberg and promoted by Douglass Carmichael had one axis representing, at one end, technology-related failures being sparse and independent, while the other end represented technical failures being interconnected and systemic. The other axis represented society's reactions: at one end there was social cohesion, and at the other end social breakdown. The four quadrants were therefore labeled as follows:

  • Official Future: Sparse failures + social cohesion leaves the world running with business as usual.
  • Smoke in the Theater: Minor technical breakdowns, magnified by the media, generate public panic which leads to social, economic and political breakdowns.
  • The Millennial Collapse: Major systemic failures and widespread public panic create the horror everyone wanted to avoid.
  • The Spirit of Community: Major systemic failures are met heroically by the public rallying together at the community level.


Item 8: And then there's Future Search Conferencing....


(All this is just the tip of the iceberg. I haven't yet found a book that describes the varieties and functions of imaginative/scenario/futuring work -- but there are many... One effort to pull it all together is the Infinite Futures site, a fascinating adventure....)

Resources    (Thanks to The Arlington Institute for many of these).


Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation by Kees Van Der Heijden

Scenario Planning: Managing for the Future by Gill Ringland

The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz

Building Our Future: A Guide to Community Visioning by Gary Green, Anna Haines, and Stephen Halebsky


How to Build Scenarios by Lawrence Wilkinson

How to Change the World: Lessons for Entrepreneurs from Activists by Adam Kahane

Democratic Politics of Technology by Richard E. Sclove. Includes description of European Scenario Workshops

Doing Scenarios by Art Kleiner - Whole Earth, Spring 1999


The Global Business Network


Infinite Futures

Panel Discussion

Forging a Community Vision


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